The Body Count and the Pentagon

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Patton once declared that, “There is only one unchanging principle
of warfare: that is, to inflict the greatest amount of death and
destruction upon the enemy in the least time possible.” This principle
has been central to US military strategy since Grant and Sherman,
and remains so today. But is it true? Is it a valid strategy?

are obvious times when it is not true. For example, if Washington
at Yorktown had slaughtered the army of Cornwallis instead of capturing
it, the war might have continued for several more years, and might
have convinced England to pour every available resource into defeating
the colonists.

finds no trace of such a “death and destruction strategy” in any
of the great military theorists like Clauswitz or Jomini; nor in
Sun Tzu who cautioned against using excessive force because one
must live with one's neighbors after they are defeated.

for the Pentagon, the “body count” strategy (as it came to be known
in Vietnam) is both militarily and morally suspect. After all, if
one can defeat the enemy with few casualties, or defeat the enemy
with tremendous casualties, all else being equal, one would morally
prefer the strategy which results in fewer casualties.

body count strategy is also militarily suspect. This is perhaps
best illustrated by two non-fiction war movies just released, “Black
Hawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers.” “Black Hawk Down” was micro-managed
by the Pentagon which insisted on approving even the smallest details
in exchange for its cooperation in making the movie, and the Pentagon
influence is unmistakable. The message of the movie (and which has
been noted by numerous commentators) is that the Somali battle was
not a defeat for the US, but a victory, because the US killed more
than a thousand Somalis in exchange for a handful of Americans.

Were Soldiers” however, demonstrates the futility of such a benchmark
of success: how many of them did we kill? “We Were Soldiers” openly
questions the body count strategy. The US went into a strategically
worthless area in search of killing as many of the enemy as possible.
A lot of US soldiers died, and lot of North Vietnamese soldiers
died, and then the US abandoned the battlefield. As the movie says,
the Army declared it a victory because more of them died; but what
was the point of it all? Did the US “victory” at Ia Drang get us
any closer to ultimate success, or was it just a lot of pointless
death and destruction?

could ask the same about the battle in “Black Hawk Down.” Did it
accomplish anything, or was it just a lot of pointless death and

big difference between the two movies is their treatment of the
enemy. “We Were Soldiers” – a thoroughly moral movie – gives a clear
sense of the humanity of the enemy. These people dying are real
people with sweethearts, wives and children just like us. Their
deaths may be necessary, but it is tragic nonetheless. It is in
the best Western tradition of Homer who tells us in the words of
Odysseus, “It is no piety to rejoice over the dead.”

Hawk Down,” however, has almost no vision of who the enemy was,
or why they were fighting, but even worse, no sense of their humanity.
An American death is a tragedy; 1000 Somali deaths is simply a statistic.
They die anonymous and unmourned.

this Pentagon “body count” strategy is alive and working in Afghanistan
today, with tragic results. The Pentagon has done its best to “inflict
the greatest amount of death and destruction in the shortest amount
of time,” and if that entails unnecessarily high civilian casualties
(by a policy which often seems be “shoot first and ask questions
later”), then, as long as Americans are not dying no one seems to
care. The US has on several confirmed occasions attacked friendly
forces or civilians they thought were Taliban, but has refused to
acknowledge that any mistakes were made, or that perhaps the US
ought to be more careful to make sure to find out who it is killing
before it starts shooting.

body count strategy was most obviously espoused by the Pentagon
when 8 US servicemen were killed in fighting the first week of March.
Pentagon spokesman John Rosa declared such casualties were not a
defeat because the US killed a lot more Afghans. Does that make
it a victory?

in “We Were Soldiers” they killed some of us, we killed a lot more
of them on some strategically worthless mountain somewhere. It is
yet to be seen if that amounts to a victory or is just a lot of
pointless death and destruction. As in Vietnam, ultimate success
relies on the US gaining the support of the civilian population
and tribal leaders. Search and destroy missions and high level bombing
– which has on numerous occasions ended up killing innocents or
US allies – does nothing to gain the support of the people. In fact,
it does the opposite. Some recent reports from Afghanistan say some
leaders have turned against the US after they were mistakenly targeted
or arrested (and allegedly mistreated).

US military has always been a lot better at destruction than pacification.
For example, is it really necessary to try to track down every tiny
group of Taliban soldiers hiding in the mountains and kill them?
Could the US be more effective by declaring an amnesty for former
Taliban leaders? Several attempts to negotiate surrenders have been
scuttled by the US, which has insisted on no amnesty. This policy
of “unconditional surrender,” and its assertion that all Taliban
leaders will be subject to trial for war crimes, has certainly encouraged
them to keep fighting.

is no way to know for certain, but had the US negotiated a surrender
with Mullah Omar some months ago, those 8 servicemen, and hundreds
of Afghans might be alive today.

US unconditional surrender policy and body count strategy in Afghanistan
risks higher casualties on all sides, and also risks continuing
to alienate a billion Moslems world wide. When the US military kills
someone (even someone like bin Laden), it creates a martyr. Militarily
and morally it is better to convince someone to surrender than to
create another martyr, another widow, and another orphan.

“We Were Soldiers” one of the main characters says that he joined
the Army to prevent people from becoming orphans, not to create
more. Every US Serviceman, and every American ought to see that
movie and consider that message very carefully. A lot of orphans
were made at the World Trade Center, and that was a tremendous tragedy.
The US military is tasked with preventing more people from becoming
orphans; that is the unchanging moral principle of warfare. Inflicting
the greatest amount of death and destruction is rarely the means
to that end.

8, 2002

Clark (send him mail)
a veteran of Desert Storm and also worked with the mujahedin in
Afghanistan. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, having written his
disseration on military ethics.

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